Poetry Comes Up Where It Can

20 November 2017:

Admittedly, I am not on the cutting edge of the literary world. I can’t keep up. And—besides my daily glance at The Poetry Foundation’s website—I do not try.

It seems there is no word for “time” in my reading world. There is no yesterday or tomorrow. There is no then or now in the ecosystem of my literary life. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) sleep in the same room with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009) or Oliva Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring (2013). In my mind, Jim Harrison and John Steinbeck stay up late into the night, when they can’t sleep, talking about good wines and good dogs they’ve had.

With that said (however muddily), the book I want to talk about is seventeen-years-old.

When the book came out I was in middle school, in Oklahoma, learning to play tennis, drawing in a sketch book instead of trying poems. I didn’t come across it until last year, rummaging through a used book sale at the library in downtown Bozeman.

This is how I understand the story: Seventeen years ago, under the umbrella of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Brian Swann, poetry editor of the now defunct quarterly, Amicus Journal, put together an anthology of poems published in Amicus between 1990 and 2000. He called it—Poetry Comes Up Where It Can.


poetry comes up where it can


Wrought from a variety of voices, Poetry Comes Up Where It Can teaches us a little bit about the world, our world, and the poet’s role in it. The well-known names are there—William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, with Mary providing a beautiful foreword in addition to her poems.

But there are other voices that startle us and sweep us off our feet as well. Reg Sanar’s “Waking At the Middle of Nowhere,” or Roger Mitchell’s “North,” or Aimee Grunberger’s “The Old Road.” These poets, their poems—new to me and fresh as anything—are only a few among the dozens who illuminate these pages.

Some poems are soft and musical because their source-material is soft and musical. A poem about a river, for instance, moves like a river, bends like a river. A poem about a wren sings in short, lofty notes and lifts itself off the page with little feet. If there is a mountain or a canyon or a crag, the poem fills the mouth like rocks.

Poems, of course, are sounds, and the best poems tend to “sound” like their subject. And sometimes (I say sometimes), I can hear in a poem how far removed the poet’s heart is from the natural word, or how close.

Here, then, is Brian Swann’s anthology, Poetry Comes Up Where It Can.

Seventeen-years-old, fast asleep in the same room with Emily Dickinson and James Wright, it is a collection of poets whose hearts are out there with the salmon and snowy spruce, the treefrogs and seals, the tamarack and wren. It is a collection of poets whose poems begin to sound like their source-material. It is a collection of poets who are out there with the rufous hummingbird, around the rhododendron, walking in the rain. Out there with the wolf and bear and wildflowers.

I can—I swear—hear it.

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